History & Heritage

Exbury House

Portrait of William GilpinThe first recorded reference to Exbury is in the Domesday Book of 1086 where the village is noted down as being called Teocrabrae. (The “T” was thought to be a diminutive of “at eocrabrae”). The two recorded heads of family were Bolla and Wolfgeat. They farmed 27 hides (270 acres) each. The next known reference to Exbury was in 1217, when the small town of Exbury, at that time owned by the Berkeley family, was destroyed by the French, retreating following their defeat at the Battle of Lincoln. Only a small chapel and a number of scattered farmsteads remained. There is little recorded history between the Battle of Lincoln and the purchase of the estate in 1726 by William Mitford. One of his first acts was to plant the cedars of Lebanon near his farm, later to become Exbury House, plus many avenues of trees radiating out from the House. However many of these avenues did not survive his grandson William Mitford, who was an avid follower of the Reverend William Gilpin M.A. and the “Picturesque” movement. The Top Pond formed part of William Mitford’s “Ladies Walk”. The “Gentleman’s Ride” has now become the public highway that loops through the centre of Exbury, each corner of which is designed to frame a view of the Isle of Wight. This can still be seen today, but only from on horseback, across the top of hedges!

A great deal of information concerning the Estate and its workings from 1726 to the early 1800s can be found in the Exbury Ledger, whose microfiche is available at the County Library in Winchester. In the 1700s the economy of Exbury was based on sheep, general crops and a two-pan salt works. When the latter closed Exbury opened a brickworks, which operated up until the First World War. The Mitfords built the current Exbury village using this characteristic yellow brick.

Forster Memorial at St Katharine
Henry Mitford was appointed British Ambassador to Japan in the 1880s and sold Exbury to John (later Lord) Forster. Forster, Lord Montagu’s brother-in-law, had two sons; one was killed in the first three weeks of the First World War, the other in the March following the armistice. This broke his heart. A memorial to the two sons may be visited in Exbury Church, this became a template for other memorials seen in churches around the country.


Lord Forster was offered the job of Governor-General of Australia and sold the Exbury Estate to Lionel de Rothschild in 1919. Lionel had moved to Inchmery House eight years earlier, to be close to his friend Scott-Montagu. They shared a passion for speed – on land and water. In 1906 they beat the water speed record at 28.8 knots and in 1907 went on to win the prestigious Perla del Mediterraneo. King Edward VII, Strathspey Sept 1909
Tiger at London Zoo c1910

Photography – particularly colour photography – was in its infancy, and Lionel was soon to try his hand with the Autochrome, with considerable success. His main inspiration for his pictures were Gardens, later to become the central pre-occupation of his life and a lasting legacy.